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Difference Between a Civil Wrongful Death Claim and Criminal Charges
Difference Between a Civil Wrongful Death Claim and Criminal Charges

In general, there are two types of cases that are brought before the court in this country: civil and criminal. Civil cases, including wrongful death claims, are brought by individuals who have been harmed by the negligent or sometimes intentional acts of others. A wrongful death lawsuit is typically filed by either the estate or the survivors of the person who was killed and typically request some kind of compensation for the damages caused in the events leading up to the suit. No criminal sentence can be doled out at the resolution of a civil case, but rather the claimant, should they win, can be awarded financial compensation for their losses.

Criminal charges, on the other hand, are always brought by a prosecutor on behalf of the state or federal government, and can result in fines, probation, imprisonment, or even execution in capital cases. In some cases, financial restitution can also be ordered by the court in a criminal case; but, in a case where death resulted, it is almost always advisable for you to file a separate civil action when it is possible to do so.

Although the exact charges vary from state to state, criminal cases that may also result in a wrongful death suit include:

  • Murder,
  • Manslaughter,
  • Felony DUI or DWI with death or DUI manslaughter,
  • Vehicular homicide, and
  • Homicide by child abuse or elder abuse

Burdens of Proof

Another thing that distinguishes a criminal action (brought by the state) and a civil action for wrongful death (brought by an individual) is the burden of proof required. In a criminal case, the state’s burden of proof will always be beyond any reasonable doubt. This is a constitutional requirement, and it is the highest standard of proof in any courtroom in our country. This means that, if the jury has any reasonable doubt as to whether the person is guilty or whether the state has proven the elements of their case, the jury must find the defendant not guilty.

The burden of proof in a wrongful death action is much lower, however. In most civil cases, the plaintiff must prove the elements of their case by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that a judge can find in favor of the plaintiff if it is simply more probable than not that the defendant is at fault. This means that a DC car accident lawyer may still be able to win a civil case for their client after a wrongful death due vehicular manslaughter, even if the a defendant was acquitted in their criminal proceedings.


In most lawsuits, whether civil or criminal, some degree of intent must be proven as an element of the crime or tort. In most criminal cases, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant’s actions were intentional or negligent. For example, to convict a person of murder, the state must prove that the person had malice aforethought or that the act was planned, even if the planning occurred just moments before the trigger was pulled.

In a civil lawsuit for wrongful death, the plaintiff may only need to prove that the defendant was negligent and that his or her negligence caused the death. If a defendant is convicted of murder, that conviction is a finding of intentional conduct that satisfies and exceeds the requirement for a wrongful death lawsuit. On the other hand, if a defendant is acquitted of murder, the victim’s estate or survivors can still bring a lawsuit for wrongful death, if they can prove that the defendant’s negligence resulted in the death.

For more information, please contact a criminal defense or personal injury lawyer who can help you understand how the law applies in your case.

C&CThanks to our friends and co-contributors at Cohen & Cohen, P.C. for their added insight into the differences between a civil and criminal proceedings.

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